Friday, August 3, 2018

Appreciations: Crime Fiction for a Muggy City Summer: Vera Caspary’s ‘Laura’

“The city that Sunday morning was quiet. Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer weekend had been crushed spiritless by humidity. Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many sodawater glasses have been washed. Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing. The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow. Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura’s epitaph. My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality."— Vera Caspary, Laura (1943)

As I get older, I find myself less and less thrilled about commuting into New York City during the hot, fetid summer. Last year was no exception. Luckily, I had just the vehicle at hand for this: the 1940s novel about crime among Gotham’s rich and fashionable set, Laura.

The photo accompanying this post is of Gene Tierney, who played the title character in Otto Preminger’s celebrated 1944 film version. Over seven decades, so many men have beheld that luminous face in rapt astonishment, like Dana Andrews’ hard-bitten detective Mark McPherson, that it’s simply impossible to disassociate the celluloid image of Laura from its original source material.

But the novel by Vera Caspary contains pleasures that, as fine as it is, the motion picture simply doesn’t prepare you for. Start with its opening paragraph, which I’ve included above. It draws you in not just because of its swift depiction of setting, but because of its tone—a first-person narrator so in love with the sound of his own voice that he reveals even as he conceals himself.

For the first three sentences, the narrator, the newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, sticks to the conventional way that murder mysteries are told. But his heart’s not in this mode of storytelling, as he informs us before long: “I still consider the conventional mystery story an excess of sound and fury, signifying far worse than nothing, a barbaric need for violence and revenge in the timid horde known as the reading public.” Only “a deep emotional involvement in the case of Laura Hunt” has led him to this activity.

But the writer’s deepest “emotional involvement” is with himself—a fact tipped off when Lydecker notes that, among the “millions” in the city, only he was “up and doing.” The only fact disclosed about Laura is that her death was “violent”—a point that, despite his fastidious style, he repeats. The end of the paragraph confirms our sense of a self-centered narrator who, all protestations to the contrary, believes that his late “friend” will be little remembered except for “the genius of her admirer.”

One would little know it from Preminger’s film, but Caspary created something far more interesting than a “conventional mystery story” or, on the screen, a highly unnerving love story (even Andrews’ no-nonsense cop becomes transfixed by necrophiliac zeal for a portrait of the victim). She subtly underscored the contrast between achievement and artifice that the men who circle Laura Hunt must weigh as they come to terms with what really happened to her.

Coming to the novel after viewing the film, it’s a shock to discover that Lydecker is not slim, as embodied memorably onscreen by Clifton Webb, but burdened by “obesity, astigmatism, [and] the softness of pale flesh.” Viewed another way, the first of the novel’s narrators is a creature of uncontrolled appetites, distorted vision and effete sensibility. But these details are in keeping with both the real-life newspaperman who inspired the character (the waspish theater critic Alexander Woollcott) and the fictional villain of the Victorian thriller whose structure Caspary was imitating (Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White).

Lydecker’s literary allusions and elevated vocabulary can’t hide his lack of originality or substance—or, as McPherson says early on, “You’re smooth all right, but you’ve got nothing to say.” His snobbishness—shown in an inability to see Laura as little more than the earnest young woman he helped to rise in the advertising world and society—also makes his other observations about her equally suspect. But the other two males who figure in her life—fiancé Shelby Carpenter, intent on declaring his contribution to her creative work even as he admits to being financially beholden to her, and McPherson, initially dismissive of her as a “two-timing dame”—are little better, at least at first.

In the hands of Preminger, Laura might have been landmark film noir (how its implications of necrophilia got past Hollywood’s Hays Office is itself a mystery), but it was hardly progressive in its treatment of working women. Caspary went to great lengths to chronicle Laura’s rise up in the advertising world (one with which the author was all too familiar, in those pre-Mad Men days, as a copywriter) and her ambivalence in balancing her career and private life. 

Preminger de-emphasized those elements onscreen. It was doubtful that a strong woman would hold much appeal to this notorious on-set bully. 

Still, let us give the director credit. Creating a classic in spite of himself, salvaging just enough elements of the source material to make it compelling (though angering Caspary for his blithe disregard for the rest), he made numerous readers like myself curious to hunt down the original—real—Laura.  And there we can relive early 1940s New York, swept up in a heat wave and a tabloid murder. In this, the year of the novel's 75th anniversary, its heroine is more contemporary than ever.

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